Duncan Bishop

Phillip Island’s greatest races

Duncan Bishop

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It is nigh on impossible to find something that MotoGP riders all agree on, but that Phillip Island is one of the best tracks on the calendar is one of those things, so here are our top three races on the circuit.

Ask them about their favourite circuits on the calendar, and most will name that of their home round, Mugello and the breezy Australian venue.

The riders aren't the only ones who circle the visit to Cowes in their diary though. Phillip Island has an enviable record of thrilling races to its name, and I've picked three of the best to review ahead of this year's Aussie round.

Got another favourite? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

1998: Doohan takes title number five

Australian riders don't 'do' sentimental, but the country's greatest 500cc rider took his fifth world title in a manner that bordered on romantic in the sporting sense. Mick Doohan, in front of his home crowd, took the chequered flag to win the Australian GP for the final time. He didn't over-dramatise the occasion though, and romped to victory from pole position.

That's not to say that it wasn't exciting - behind him the podium finishers were being made to work. I spoke to runner-up that day, Simon Crafar - author of a cracking new riding skills book and DVD - this week to get his memories of the race.

"I remember that race as the most enjoyable of my career," recalls the New Zealander. "Phillip Island is one of my favourite circuits to ride. I remember getting a rubbish start which took away my chance to go with Mick at the front. He really pushed the first laps on a soft tyre to get away from the group of us.

"Of course I was hoping to get away with Mick at the start and save myself all that work, but everyone else wanted the same and no one managed to do it. Mick had a plan and he executed it perfectly. The rest of us were left to fight for second.

"The memory of battling through from seventh or eighth mid race, past Biaggi, Kosinski, Abe, Barros and Criville, to second at the flag, in front of the huge Aussie crowd there to see Mick win World Championship number five, plus my family, is the best of my career."

In terms of sheer occasion, the 1998 race takes some beating. It's also a great taster for this weekend, when Casey Stoner will have the chance to emulate Doohan by clinching the title at home.

2003: Rossi against the clock

Jump forward five years, and another dominant rider on a Repsol Honda was putting in a stunning performance at Phillip Island. This was back in the days when Valentino Rossi was achieving the impossible on a regular basis, and the 2003 Australian Grand Prix stands out as probably The Doctor's best ride.

"Troy Bayliss will either win this race or throw the bike onto the beach," said Ducati boss Livio Suppo ahead of the 990cc contest, and his charge's 'win it or bin it' approach came up short. He clipped Marco Melandri on lap one, knocking himself off-track, out of the race and out cold. The yellow flags came out, but Rossi did not see them and made a pass at the same corner a lap later. For the second time that season, he was shown a time penalty. What happened next was the unleashing of the Italian's superhuman side.

Pushing to the front of the race, Rossi knew that he had to extend his advantage to over 10 seconds in order to render the 10-second time penalty inconsequential. But why stop at 10? After clocking the fastest lap of the race seven times and riding in the mid-1'31s towards the end, he took the win by a massive 15 seconds over Loris Capirossi. For a rider who liked to toy with his rivals, Rossi showed that he had crushing dominance in his repertoire as well.

2006: Melandri goes flag-to-flag

For all its virtues, one thing that can't be said about Phillip Island is that it has a spacious pit lane. You couldn't find a more unsuitable track, then, for the first ever flag-to-flag MotoGP race. It's one of my favourites for anecdotal reasons more than anything else, and edges out Gardner winning from Doohan in 1990 despite that race having more of a battle at the front ("I am not particularly a Gardner fan, but the GP he won with all my heroes in it, with his fairing hanging off after an almost high-side - his usual style - was truly awesome to watch. Respect for such determination," says Crafar on that particular race).

What 2006 had was the intrigue of a new rule being used for the first time. Melandri always seemed to have a knack for knowing when to change bikes (apart from when he chose to go to Ducati, if we are being uncharitable) and came in on lap nine at the perfect time for the conditions. He made one of the smoothest switches - and much more comfortable for his team than that experienced by Dani Pedrosa's place-marking mechanic, who took an RC211V to the groin when the Spaniard made his change - and had the pace to get in front of Chris Vermeulen and Sete Gibernau, extend his lead, and take victory.

You might be sick of Sebastian Vettel's one-fingered celebration by now, but I challenge anyone to get bored of Melandri's version as he crossed the line in Australia...

What's YOUR pick? The 2000 all-Italian podium? The 2004 tussle? Maybe Olivier Jacque winning the 250cc race and title from Shinya Nakano? Let's hope this year's race gives us another contender to consider next time around.

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